- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

Always ambitious and often foolish, humans sought the ability to fly for thousands of years before achieving success. Some tried wearing artificial wings on their arms; others envisioned being pulled by birds in flight.
It wasn't until 1783, when two French brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, launched a manned hot-air balloon in Paris, that we actually triumphed.
From then on, flight took off in more ways than one. The airplane came in the early 20th century and turned commercial a few decades later. Space rockets followed.
Still, old faithful, the balloon, is still around, and the science behind it has stayed much the same even with such fancy creations as the Spirit of Freedom, with which Steve Fossett recently drifted into record books by flying solo around the world.
"The fundamental technology is that hot air expands and is less dense than the cool air outside. That's why the balloon creates a lift," says Dwight Bawcom, a retired engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and current chairman of the Balloon Technical Committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Reston. "As long as you keep heat in the balloon, you will go up."
A hot-air balloon consist of a basket or carriage, usually made of rattan; a burner, often fueled with propane; and a balloon or envelope, often made of nylon. While the balloon is on the ground, large fans are used to fill the envelope with air. Once it's filled with air and hovers over the carriage, the burner is turned on to replace the cold air with hot air.
As the air heats, the balloon rises.

Robert Thomas is a hot-air-balloon pilot whose business, Balloons Unlimited, has taken passengers aloft for 26 years from his Middleburg, Va., farm.
"We fly over farms, fancy horse estates, but also subdivisions," Mr. Thomas says.
The carriage can hold about eight people, and the flight goes on for about an hour. During that hour, while the passengers enjoy the view, the pilot is hard at work, using the winds to navigate the balloon through the air.
Unlike airships, such as blimps and zeppelins, balloons don't have a steering mechanism.
"There is no steering in a balloon," Mr. Thomas says. "You're trying to figure out what 'steering' winds are available."
A balloon pilot may ascend (by increasing the heat in the balloon) to catch a wind in one direction, or descend (by letting the air in the balloon cool down) to catch a wind going in the other direction.
Passenger balloons drift at between 500 and 3,000 feet, as measured with an altimeter. The world altitude record, though, is more than 100,000 feet, according to the World Air Sports Federation, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
"From a piloting standpoint, I like the challenge of trying to figure out what Mother Nature is up to," Mr. Thomas says.
Sometimes, Mother Nature produces too much haze, wind, rain or fog for a flight to take off. Balloons are aircraft and are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. If it's hazy or foggy and the visibility is less than three miles, balloons can't go up, according to the FAA regulations. Also, pilots need a license, issued by the FAA.
Once the hour is finished, it's time to land and that is the trickiest portion of the flight because the pilot can't steer the balloon to land in the exact same spot every time.
"Landing is not an exact science," Mr. Thomas says.
Sometimes balloons land in cow pastures, other times on horse estates or even in subdivisions.
"Actually, my favorite place to land is people's yards, with the nicely mowed grass and everything," Mr. Thomas says. "People love it, and the kids come out, and it turns into a block party."
A ground crew, the chase crew, helps with the landing by making sure that the property owner doesn't mind the touchdown and by packing up the balloon as well as getting everyone back to the starting point.
While the balloon is in the air, the pilot and chase crew communicate via cell phones.

Though most common at festivals, hot-air balloons are not the only type of balloon around. Shortly after the Montgolfier brothers came up with their hot-air balloon, a compatriot of theirs, J.A.C. Charles, launched the first gas balloon, using hydrogen inside the envelope.
In some gas balloons, the envelope is sealed, in contrast to the hot-air balloon, which always has an opening at the bottom to allow for the burner to heat the air.
The Montgolfier brothers may have been the first to man a balloon, but Charles' creation became the fad of the 18th and 19th centuries.
"The gas balloon became very popular in the 19th century, and very few people actually flew hot-air balloons anymore," says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
An advantage of the gas balloon is its silent way of traveling, but the cost is much higher than that of a hot-air balloon.
For a gas balloon to ascend, the pilot releases ballast. When preparing to descend, the pilot opens valves to release some of the gas.
A third kind of balloon is the combination balloon, which is called a Roziere balloon after its inventor, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Roziere. It contains both a hot-air compartment and a gas compartment. This is the kind of balloon Mr. Fossett used. It uses propane and ethane to heat the air, and it uses helium as its gas component.
The reason someone like Mr. Fossett may want to use a combination balloon is that the gas is good for flying high and long without having to use a burner or store excessive amounts of fuel. During the night, however, the helium cools and the balloon starts to descend. The hot air is used to keep the balloon at the desired altitude.
In the daytime, when it's hot, the skilled pilot may have to release gas if the balloon starts to rise too much. With this type of combination balloon, the pilot may be able to avoid "yo-yoing" up and down with the changing temperatures, using only a minimal amount of ballast.

Ballooning is not just for fun. Aside from the festivals and the Fossetts of the world, ballooning is also used for scientific research.
"Ballooning has played an incredibly important role in aeronautics," Mr. Crouch says. "Before we started riding rockets, balloons had the altitude records. Sending them up to the upper atmosphere allowed us to test equipment and material we were going to send into space."
They still play an important role, Mr. Bawcom says. When the scientific balloons variations of the gas kind are used most often go to the upper reaches of the atmosphere or even beyond that, they can retrieve samples of cosmic rays and temperature measurements that can help us better understand the history of the universe, he says.
One of the biggest advantages of sending up a gas balloon instead of a satellite, which could do the same work, is cost. Gas balloons can cost a hundredth of the cost of a satellite, Mr. Bawcom says.
Some of the most advanced research in electromagnetic fields is done by using balloons, Mr. Bawcom says. Researchers are finding that electrical discharges lightning shoot up from clouds, not just between clouds and down toward the ground, which previously was thought to be the case.
Scientists are analyzing how this might change our knowledge of electromagnetic fields.

Hot-air and gas ballooning may never become as popular as airplane flying because landing is unpredictable. The balloon most likely will never become a commercial transportation vehicle because most commuters and other travelers have a specific destination in mind when they board.
However, ballooning's place in the past, present and future of aeronautics is strong, the experts say.
"Balloons were the only way to fly before 1903," Mr. Crouch says, referring to the year of the Wright brothers' first flight, "and they remain incredibly important for scientists to study cosmic rays and other geophysical phenomenons."
For the rest of us, a ride high in the sky in a straw basket attached to some colorful nylon can be a wonderful way to spend a dawn or dusk in the countryside.

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